Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Reporters and the Gates Foundation.

This excellent AP story by Libby Quaid and Donna Blankinship about the Gates Foundation’s huge influence on education policy made me even more concerned that many (though not all) reporters tell me how hard it is to get foundation staff to call them back. Today I spoke with Chris Williams, the Gates media officer handling K-12 education. (He returned my call the day I placed it.)

Chris said that there are only two people answering media calls for the U.S. program: he and Marie Groark, who handles higher ed. They are both also program officers. Therefore, busy. Chris said that he’s probably not going to call you back if your deadline is a couple weeks away. You may have to try three or four times before he responds. The foundation has a policy of never commenting on grants that have not yet been approved, and, Chris said, “lots of the queries that come to us are better answered by our grantees. They’re the ones on the ground doing the work.”

Journalists have told me district officials are often fearful of discussing their Gates grants. And a few reporters say they have had such trouble reaching the foundation that they have given up trying. It shouldn’t be that hard, but with $200 million a year at stake—not to mention an important role in helping states win the Race to the Top billions—it shouldn’t stop anyone, either.

Chris is at chris.williams@gatesfoundation.org or 206-709-3317 (office) or 206-295-6013 (cell). Marie is at marie.groark@gatesfoundation.org or 206-709-3299. On issues regarding Washington state, libraries and community grant-making, call the communications media line at 206-709-3400.

Full disclosure: EWA receives some funding from the Gates Foundation, and Marie is one of our board members.


  1. Thanks, Linda.

    For what it's worth, a couple more points about working with Gates Foundation education program media officers...

    Sometimes two or three weeks before a deadline is a perfectly reasonable request, and I understand that. I'll always try to accommodate when more lead time is necessary. Also, when the request is to interview someone senior at the foundation, that kind of lead time is often necessary because of tight schedules and booked calendars.

    Also, my point in saying it may take a few calls to get to me is that I don't mind being bugged a few times about requests. We are juggling a lot, and, frankly, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease!

    Thanks for taking the time to talk to me this morning.

    -Chris Williams

  2. With all the money that foundation has, couldn't they afford another PIO to return calls promptly?

  3. I guess I don't see the big deal. "The foundation is offering $250,000 apiece to help states apply, so long as they agree with the foundation's approach." States are worried about $250K? That's a week's worth of toilet paper for CA schools. Also: "The Oakland (CA)Unified School District has become a playground for the Bill Gates/Eli Broad forces, a place for them to experiment with their whims." The completely in debt school district with their now, finally, great Superintendent Tony Smith, are willing partners. It takes two to tango. That money doesn't get to OUSD without partners.

    Steve Cohen

  4. New Oakland Unified Superintendent Tony Smith is amiable and probably promising but untested in a setting like OUSD. He was previously an asst. superintendent in my district, San Francisco Unified, with no noticeable impact one way or the other. No tears were shed nor dances of joy performed when he left SFUSD.

    I point this out only because if it's a journalist referring to him as "great" with no real basis, that raises some big concerns about education reporting. He COULD be great -- or not -- but that's unknown and unknowable yet.

    OUSD is an interesting experiment to watch. Many activist parents there view it as a high-risk experiment on vulnerable children, though.

  5. Oh, and also, Oakland Unified had been taken over by the California Department of Education and run by state-appointed custodians without local input for some years after a financial meltdown. So it's inaccurate to present the situation as though the Oakland school community welcomed the billionaire eduphilanthropists' involvement. IF they had had a choice, perhaps they would have welcomed it, but in reality they did not have a choice.

    As with characterizing an untested new superintendent as "great," it's also a little alarming if it's a journalist who is presenting this misinformation.